When cellular phones were first making their way into the national consciousness, disabled groups lobbied for the inclusion of one-touch 911 dialing on every phone. Handset manufacturers and carriers agreed to the request, and soon most handsets being sold could reach 911 in a flash.

The feature is great for callers in an emergency. Unfortunately, not everyone who dials 911 this way is in trouble -- or even aware that they have placed the call. "In any given month, 40 percent to 60 percent of our [wireless 911] calls are unintentional or accidental," said Nanci Kramer, information officer of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) in Sacramento.

This percentage is troubling because the CHP handled more than six million wireless 911 calls in 2000 -- up from a mere 21,000 calls in 1985. That translates to an average of five accidental calls every minute. With phone-industry experts estimating that a new cell phone is sold every three seconds, Kramer said, "Its extremely difficult to stay ahead of the tide of new users."

The huge number of accidental calls results from the design of the cell phones and the inattentiveness of their owners. Many cell-phone owners hit the 911 button accidentally while carrying the phone in a coat pocket or purse. When the operator taking the call doesnt get a voice response, he or she must call the number back to determine whether an emergency is actually taking place.

This process can get tedious quickly. "Youll hear a saw or drills or hammers banging, and you realize that its a worker on a job site who backed into his phone and he cant hear us calling back," said Kramer. "When I was in the Bay Area, one day one phone dialed in 53 times."

Charging callers for phony 911 calls might have solved the problem, but that route would have required state legislation. Instead, the Golden Gate Division of the CHP created a pilot project intended for high volume times when operators cant handle every call and people are forced to hold -- a problem that occurs most often during rush hour when hundreds of drivers call to report the same accident.

During the pilot project, whenever callers in the nine Bay Area counties reached the automated attendant instead of a live operator, they were prompted to press any key. If they didnt press anything within a few seconds, they were prompted again. If there was still no response, the system dropped the call.

Kramer said there was some concern that an individual drifting in and out of consciousness or a small child dialing 911 would be disconnected by the system, but those types of callers probably couldnt have been helped anyway. "Because the wireless system doesnt have a way to locate you when you dial, you have to be able to articulate where you are and what your emergency is," she said.

Applying the Brakes

The pilot project, initially scheduled for six months, was brought to a halt after six weeks -- but not because it didnt work. "We did see a marked improvement in the level of service," said Sue Kelly, CHPs 911 program manager. "It went from thousands of [busy signals] to tens during [rush hour] periods."

However, during the course of the project, the CHP discovered that some handsets lock up the keypad after the 911 button is pressed, preventing those callers from hitting a key and staying on hold. The number of such handsets is believed to be small, but the CHP decided to end the project early since legitimate calls could potentially be dropped from the system.

Bill Harry, assistant commander of telecommunications, said that the CHP is now looking into developing an interactive voice response system that would allow callers on hold to either press any key or say anything to remain on the line.

No matter what the CHP comes up with, the 911 situation will most likely change again this fall. The FCC has mandated that wireless carriers must be prepared to deliver a cell phone users location -- either through GPS or land-based means -- if the local authorities are ready to use that information. Harry is looking forward to that time.

"We identified a problem and came up with a solution because there was no other solution available," he said. "It would be appreciated if the handset manufacturers and carriers took a more active role in acknowledging this problem and finding a solution."